The balance between delegating and doing

Recently I was asked to give a short talk on balancing delegating vs doing at a CEO forum. I thought I would share some thoughts here as I prepare. Mostly from the CEO viewpoint, but many of the ideas here could apply to managers in other roles.

I think there are four types of tasks a CEO needs to do:

1. Core job. Building the exec team, keeping money in the bank, pointing the team in the right direction, and guiding the culture.

2. Tasks that come with the title. Some big customers want to meet you. Investors  want to meet you. Employees want to hear from you. Just because someone else can do those meetings just as well or better doesn’t make it the same. As a company grows there could be 200 hours a week of tasks in this category so you will need to prioritize.

3. Personal growth. First, you need to ensure you are constantly refreshing your understanding of the business. Do you know what is working and what is not? How customers and employees feel? If not, how can you make decisions about company direction or executives? Getting good data is hard. You also need to be constantly building your skills, and in many cases you need to be building your network and public profile. It is easy to neglect this category. Don’t.

4. Skillset based. Stuff that isn’t really for the CEO, but you are the best person to do it. In a small company there will be a lot in this category. As the company gets bigger there will be less. This is often the area where balancing challenges arise.

There is no right answer for every situation. Some of the factors that will lean towards more delegating are:

1. Larger organizations. Unsurprisingly, as your team gets larger your impact will be primarily through leadership and your individual contributions will be smaller.

2. Volume models. At facebook with over a billion users, the CEO doesn’t personally recruit each user. But at Boeing, the CEO might be very involved in a sale of 100 dreamliners.

3. Status quo is working well. If there is a good product market fit, the team is executing well and the culture is working, let the team do its job. If one or more of those is broken, you need to roll up your sleeves and fix it.

Of course the absence of these factors will lead towards more doing. Some other factors that lead towards more doing:

1. Inability to hire those who can do critical tasks better than you. You’ve heard 100 times to hire people that are better than you. But probably you got your job (either hired as CEO, or your startup was funded) because you are very very good at what you do. Finding people who are “better” than you is not as easy as it sounds. Of course they don’t need to be able to do everything you do, but for roles that demand breadth it can be very hard to let go. This can be particularly challenging if your company is struggling and your ability to hire is limited (either because you have limited budget, or because great people don’t want to join).

2. The success of the company is particularly dependent on one task and you are extraordinarily good at that task. For example, you are a great sales person and the company must win a critical deal to make it to the next stage. Or you are the company’s product visionary and the market is changing significantly.

3. Spiky skillset. If you are a generalist (like many hired CEOs), it probably makes sense to delegate more because you are unlikely to be the best person in the company at any particular task. If you are awesome at one or a few things (like many founding CEOs) it make make sense to hang onto some tasks for longer. Some conventional wisdom would say that maybe you should focus on those tasks rather than being CEO, but CEO transitions are risky and founder leadership is important, so you may be in a tricky situation for a long time. High class problem.

Most important is to be realistic in assessing your own skills and the company’s needs. If you have a good board, they will understand both well enough to help and you will trust them well enough to accept their help.

Good luck,

— Max

2 comments so far

  1. G. Walker on

    This seems pretty straight forward. My CEO is great at all of this which is why we are successful. Other bosses, at other companies, were not so great at this and thus the lack of success. A + B = C

    • Max Schireson on

      Glad it’s working well at your current company. Unfortunately simple things seem to get found up far too often.


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